Dr. Sarah Cooper will provide this year’s lecture on scientific literacy and the law. Science helps the law to understand the world in which legal policy, including human rights standards like the right to a fair and public trial, must operate. Yet, it is widely recognized that law and science approach the world in different ways: law must provide finality and stability, whereas science is encouraged to embrace new ideas so that we can better understand the natural world. The criminal justice system’s use of forensic science shows how these differences can have consequences: law can misuse science, be skeptical about change, and construe what is rational in a narrow way.
Moreover, these issues can be exacerbated by lawyers having, generally, limited science education and training options. Lawyers, though, make key calls about scientific evidence at all stages of its journey through the criminal justice system — its selection, how it is presented and challenged, and how it will inform case strategy. Moreover, lawyers become judges, who then make other key calls, for instance about what precedent to follow or shape regarding admissibility, the boundaries of direct and cross-examination, and the tools lawyers can use in both pursuits. As such, lawyers need science literacy, but how much do they value it? To what extent do the structures that lawyers operate within support the development of science literacy? The National Academy of Sciences’ recommends that conceptions of science literacy within justice systems be expanded. Drawing on intersections between criminal justice, forensics, and wrongful convictions to illustrate, this lecture will present ideas for how we can work towards answering these questions and, in doing so, build a stronger justice system for all.
Dr. Sarah Cooper is a professor of Interdisciplinary Criminal Justice at Birmingham City University’s College of Law, Social and Criminal Justice in the United Kingdom, where she serves as chair of the Faculty for the Business, Law and Social Sciences’ Research Degrees and Environment Committee, and site director for the Midlands4Cities Arts and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership. Her research, which focuses on challenges that can arise when legal systems and agents interact with science, has been cited widely by scholars, judges, lawyers, and in treatises. Her current projects focus on juror decision-making and expert evidence, lawyers and science literacy, and compassionate release from prison procedures. She supervises a range of doctoral research projects, including investigations into neuroscience and juvenile justice; legal versus scientific causation; technology and smart cities; judicial referencing of agency science; and legal challenges relating to medical diagnoses. She has received several funding awards, including from the Leverhulme Trust and British Academy, and has held visiting scholar positions at the Arizona Justice Project, Amicus, Arizona State University, Pace University, and the Law Library of Congress.
Subscribe to In Custodia Legis – it’s free! – to receive interesting posts drawn from the Law Library of Congress’s vast collections and our staff’s expertise in U.S., foreign, and international law.